Camus and the Aesthetics of Stone

by Dwight Furrow

I recently finished reading Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms on the same day in which the utter hopelessness of our political situation became obvious, as the “beacon of liberty” accelerates its descent into fascism. The final passages of the book didn't help my mood much. In Hemingway's masterpiece, the drudgery and pointlessness of war becomes a metaphor for the drudgery and pointlessness of life. In the end, neither the heroism of love nor the promise of birth can stanch the tragic flood that threatens every idyll. For Hemingway, stoic resignation seems the only proper attitude as Henry slogs his way home from the hospital where Catherine and their child had perished, huddled against the relentless rain that had darkened the final pages.

The world is not good enough and we can't do much about it. Soldiering on is the best we can do.Sisyphus

When in such a mood I like to consult Camus. No, I'm not masochistic, or at least I don't think so. The Camus that inspires me is not the fist shaking Camus of The Rebel or the dubious, Stoic-tinged Camus of the Myth of Sisyphus. There is another side to Camus that gets far too little attention. In an early essay, Nuptials at Tipasa, he writes:

The breeze is cool and the sky blue. I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition. Yet people have often told me: there's nothing to be proud of. Yes, there is: this sun, this sea, my heart leaping with youth, the salt taste of my body and this vast landscape in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow. It is to conquer this that I need my strength and my resources. Everything here leaves me in tact, I surrender nothing of myself, and don no mask: learning patiently and arduously how to live is enough for me, well worth all their arts of living. (Nuptials, 69)

In the face of a world unresponsive to human values, despair is ruled out, for ensconced within Camus' numbing litany of all-too-human failure are lovely passages in which pure sensuous enjoyment lifts the spirit and provides justification even in life's trying moments. This is the lyrical Camus extolling what he sometimes calls the “Mediterranean life” where the live-in-moment vitality of sensory experience is a repository of meaning infusing life with significance in the absence of transcendental certification, even in the face of inevitable loss.

Intuitively, Camus' idea that meaning is to be found in the everyday rendered alluring by our willingness to see its beauty is appealing. The problem is I have never found an argument in Camus' work that links the Stoic-like absurd hero with the happy hedonist. How could something as seemingly trivial as the sun and sea provide meaning in the face of the absurd?

As countless commentators have pointed out, some of Camus arguments do not withstand philosophical scrutiny. Camus famously argues that the human condition resembles the situation of Sisyphus in Greek mythology, condemned to endlessly roll a stone up a hill only to have the stone roll back to the bottom. As to why the human condition is like that, at times Camus seems to argue that because there is no God, no externally imposed purpose to human life, and no afterlife, human activities lack meaning. But that conclusion simply does not follow. The fact we have to impose meaning on activities, meanings that will evaporate when we die, does not render them meaningless. Camus must have something more in mind.

Indeed, the heart of Camus argument is that “We must despair of ever reconstructing the familiar, calm surface which would give us peace of heart” (Myth of Sisyphus, 18). There is a “hiatus between what we fancy we know and what we really know” (MS, 18). “This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said” (MS, 21). Yes, we can impose meaning on our plans and projects, but that constructed meaning will lack the happy confluence of what is and what should be that a God-certified universe would exhibit. We strive for the unity of a world that conforms to our aims and can be reshaped to reflect our values. We strive to make the world rational in order to feel at one with it—to merge what ought to be and what is. But that unity is never achieved. In this endeavor we are indeed like Sisyphus always falling short of remaking the world and having to start over again. As Robert Zaretsky explains in a recent biography of Camus: “The absurd is the child of disparity. It rises before us when our expectations fall short of reality.”

It matters not whether this is the public world of politics and business or the private world of personal projects and desires. The world is not good enough. That most of us believe we can mend it is just testimony to the depth of self-deception. Yet, as Camus rightly insisted, we can't escape this longing for unity and clarity either. It's baked into the human condition and defines what it means to be human. Thus, for Camus, the best we can do is live in defiance of our limitations and the world's recalcitrance but lucidly, without consolation or hope.

Soldiering on.

And so Camus' Myth of Sisyphus ends with this stunning claim: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (MS, 123). Apparently Camus thinks we should be happy in pursuit regardless of how it turns out. But this is dubious. A life devoted to boring, repetitive, futility is not a happy life although it may be meaningful. And it seems a far cry from a life devoted to sensory vitality which he elsewhere extols.

Can we not do better than this?

It is tempting to claim that human life is not as bad as Camus makes it out to be. Sometimes our plans don't work out and end tragically; sometimes even when we succeed we are left dissatisfied. Ultimately, of course, the projects we undertake will amount to nothing. But why think only ultimate ends confer meaning? Don't most people have modest intentions requiring only the sort of modest interventions that a mute, indifferent but not actively hostile world can accommodate, leaving the universe to do its own thing? Granted we should not try to remake the world but can't we sometimes successfully manage our own situation sufficiently well to avoid the feeling of absurdity and get hope off the ground? If we influence the people around us and make their lives better (and thus make ours better as well) why is such a life absurd?

I suppose all of our activities presuppose the belief that this time things will work out, that today there is a fit between what we want and what can be achieved. There can be no full-throated endorsement of ordinary activities without faith in a stable world of rational expectations. This is the logic whenever we step outside the present moment; we depend on something we cannot know with certainty. But why is a contingent universe absurd?

When Camus claims that the universe is mute and uncaring, he could mean one of two things: (1) The world lacks a moral order and is indifferent to human aims but is not hostile to them. There is an intelligible order that enables rational expectations that are not routinely thwarted, and a reliable albeit humanly constructed moral order worthy of trust; or (2) the world lacks basic intelligibility and human agency is thwarted because rational expectations are impossible.

Camus sometimes seems to think (2) is the right account. The degree to which the absurd resonates depends on whether one agrees with Camus on this point. There is an argument to be had about whether the world is this irrational. Sure, for some of us, our personal lives work out fine. But it doesn't take much of a step back from the personal to see humanity as a seething cauldron of misery and evil in the face of which rebellion and soldiering on without hope seems the only sincere choice.

But, in any case, Camus' argument for the Mediterranean life is coming into focus. For even if the world is not actively hostile to human aims, our appropriate desires and modest intentions, however successful they might be, will not yield unity, will not collapse the distinction between how the world is and how it ought to be. Camus is surely right that an indifferent universe, even if not hostile, will not conform to human expectations. The good will continue to suffer; the bad will often prosper; good intentions will go awry; tragic conflict will try our integrity. Once the omnipotent is forsworn our limits will be salient. Even for the successful the world is never quite good enough. Satisfactions are temporary victories; all seasons, seasons of discontent.

But this is where the lyrical Camus comes to the rescue. That rift that sees the world as not quite good enough will always be there except when we focus on the moment, when all concern for the future is suspended, plans are ignored, goals are set aside, and we look with wonder at what is before our eyes. It is then that sensory vitality is the only game in town. Only then is the universe good enough because deficiency takes time to unfold. Time is the worm of dissatisfaction that menaces the human heart, its suspension achievable only with phenomenological trickery. This is the point of what Camus misleadingly calls an “ethic of quantity” in which the aim of life is simply to acquire more experience felt with maximal intensity. It takes what is given without regret or anticipation.

Of course we can't live “in the moment” all the time. But Camus' examples of absurd heroes suggest some forms of life capture this sensory vitality better than others. The “Don Juan” who loves intensely a never ending series of women, the actor who enthusiastically inhabits a procession of roles, the warrior who valiantly fights despite knowing that conquest is impossible, all find meaning in more and more intense experience without attributing to it any larger significance.

The artist is especially in a position to glimpse that unity, albeit an ideal unity, since imagination need be only minimally constrained by the world.

I say the notion of an “ethic of quantity” is misleading because, in the lives of each of these absurd heroes, there is no separating the quantity of experience from its quality. Presumably, Don Juan finds something attractive about each conquest, the actor finds the particulars of her roles invigorating, the warrior thrilled by the nuance of each battle. Surely the artist is not concerned only with another painting, but with another good painting.

In the end, Sisyphus is only a meager representation of an absurd hero possessing the form of the absurd without its content. The life of Sisyphus is not only absurd but absurdly dull. Missing from the life of the Sisyphean hero is something Camus never supplies—an aesthetics of stone.

Dwight Furrow finds sensory vitality in the world of food and wine. See American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution or visit his blog Edible Arts

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